By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST January, 2020
The ten artists in Collected Works of Chinese New-Generation Female Artists, the show up at Anderson Contemporary at 180 Maiden Lane, are in their mid twenties to early thirties and are wholly unalike. Which startled me. Let me clarify. Some fifteen years ago I was in Beijing when China’s contemporary art world was blowing up. And blowing up big. Factory 798, the Art Zone set up in a former military industrial plant, had become one of the top three tourist attractions in China, along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. And that gallery go-round, plus a number of studio visits, had made it apparent that working artists fell broadly into two categories: Those trained in the practices of socialist realism and those working in the venerable tradition of ink painting.
Also I remembered seeing no woman artists in Factory 798 and none had been on the itinerary of my studio visits. But over the next few years that art world went through significant changes. Ai Weiwei came to public attention and entered upon the trajectory of creating a major work: Himself. Then a few years later I did interview a woman artist, Cao Fei, who had shot art documentaries and moved on to using the on-line game, Second Life, to create RMB City, a virtual city, open to the public. Western galleries set up in China, as did the auction houses, and Chinese art stars joined the global firmament. Which brings me to Maiden Lane.
Well, these artists are all over the art-making map. Ying Liu, for instance, has naturalistic jungle paintings up, alongside swirly abstract woodcuts and realistic paintings of beach life, Euros in dark glasses being very much part of it. Yanhe Liu shows abstractions that derive from plant life and Yujing Wang’s oil and pigment canvases are as distinctly different as the head of a red rooster, a canvas featuring seven separate texts, a strong abstraction and a history painting executed in the classic manner, being a horizontal oblong which depicts many small, precisely painted figures and is titled On Top of the East Mountain.
Connections are there to be made though. Yunfei Zhang’s meticulous drawn pieces were made on silk. So were Qianyin Zuo’s pieces from The Series of Peach Blossom and Face Glowing, which included a great many ink drawings of flowers and warmly rather than saucily depicted female body parts. Western artists do not frequently bother to revive old-school techniques but these young artists are not just making woodcuts and silk paintings but paint in lacquer on wood. Yujing Wang is quoted in the catalog on the need to explore ”What traditional artistic nutrients must be absorbed by contemporary Chinese ink painting.”
The borrowings from the past go way beyond art materials though. Several of the artists work within the classical landscape tradition. Tianshu Gong’s striking oil on plexiglass paintings of puffy-cheeked women turn out to be derived from ancient sculptures. Quinyu Zheng uses water-color and colored pencils to make works with such captions as The Story of Antiques: Phoenix Coronet. The Story of Antiques Bronze Fu Hao Tomahawk and the ultra classic The Story of Antiques: Terracotta Warriors.
Work by Western artists that focuses such subject matter will almost inevitably be laced with Pop irony. Not so here. There is humor, as with Yunfei Zhang’s drawings and paintings of edibles such as fish, a sea urchin, lobsters and a mustard-smeared hotdog, sometimes with the add of a cartoony babe, a stand-in for the artist, who made it clear that she was in love with her yummy foodstuffs. But hard-core Western irony is not a presence here.
A comparable show in the West would also likely be resonant with retro Modernism but that too is blessedly absent. It is made clear that these differences are not accidental by an essay in the show’s hefty catalog, referencing a 1999 essay by Guangzhi Zhang to the effect that China has had a “continuous civilisation”, whereas the characteristic Western model ever since the ancient Sumerians has been the “breakthrough civilization” or “rupture civilization”. So the Cultural Revolution was just a hiccup, the interruption of a “continuous” Chinese civilisation? That seems oddly credible at this show.
Which said, this forefronting of young female artists clearly is something new. The impetus came from Han Wang, president of the WAEC, the World Arts Educational Corporation, who put together the show, mostly from work made by students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Arts. We spoke on the telephone, by way of an interpreter, and I went straight to what had first struck me about the show, which was the remarkable breadth of approaches, from cutting edge to classical, abstract to figuration.
“China is developing so fast,” President Wang said. “In the past ten years there has been a huge change … there’s a new globalism … they have the capability of using different resources from different countries. They have more info, new skill sets , many different styles, They have the capacity to reach out, exploit a lot of techniques.”
Thought had also gone into the choice of an appropriate gallery to present the show in New York, Wang said. Anderson Contemporary, which was started by Ronnie Anderson two years ago on the ground floor of a commercial tower beside the seaport in the Financial District, has 3,200 square foot of wallspace in a 20,000 square foot space. That appealed greatly.
“I like the half open space,” Wang told me.
Anderson Contemporary, in short, is white box that isn’t just that. And there was also Anderson herself.
“Ronnie has the passion to promote female artists,” Wang said.
There is a dark presence here. Unmentioned in the catalogue but hard to ignore in the context of this show is China’s long tradition of being averse to baby girls, indeed very frequently killing them, and tossing them into the trash. Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation, a chilling look at the effects of the one child policy which was brought into being because of the population explosion brought about by Chairman Mao, won the Documentary Grand Prize at Sundance in 2019. And it is I think legitimate to see this show, Chinese New-Generation Female Artists, as a powerful statement in itself on a somewhat brighter future. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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